This week Minister Hogan annouced plans to reduce the number of TDs in Dail Eireann:
“Minister Hogan said: “The new Government intends to lead by example and start change at the top. Irish politics needs to start delivering for the Irish people and this Government is determined to make real, tangible reforms which will make the political system leaner and more efficient for its citizens. As part of that agenda, the terms of reference for the Constituency Commission will be changed to provide for a reduced number of TDs. A Constituency Commission is due to be established upon the publication of the 2011 Census preliminary results, which are due in June. That Commission will report within three months of the publication of final census results in 2012.”[i]
Article 16.2 lays down the constitutionally acceptable represenation ratio as follows[ii]:
2. 1° Dáil Éireann shall be composed of members who represent constituencies determined by law.
2° The number of members shall from time to time be fixed by law, but the total number of members of Dáil Éireann shall not be fixed at less than one member for each thirty thousand of the population, or at more than one member for each twenty thousand of the population.
Basically one TD cannot represent more than 30,000 people and there cannot be less than three TDs returned per constituency. The ratio of TDs to member of the population will be reviewed after each census (16.2.3), a review will take place every twelve years (16.2.4) and the changes will take effect in the preceding Dail (16.2.4). It is also worth noting that the Constitution does not permit less than three TDs being returned from a constituency.
The current ratio is based on the results of the 2002 census where by the figure for the total population (at the time 3,917,203 people) was divided amongst the 166 available seats and this resulted in 1 TD to every 23,598 of the total population including children. This fact was submitted in evidence by Ms. Riona Ni Fhlanghaile Principal Officer of the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government in the recent High Court case of Doherty v. Government of Ireland[iii]
The issue of casual vacanies, as in the Doherty case above and Dudley v. An Taoiseach[iv], has been the most litigated issue under the provisions of Article 16.2. However the rationale for this representation ratio was not addressed.
Constitutional Law theory accepts that the main reason behind its creation is that it will codeify and set out the rules and limitiation in a succinct and understandable form. One of the main limitiations on the power of Government is ensuring that there is a pluality of voices returned to the parliament in order to better represent the nation as whole.
This is not the first time that reform bodies have cast their eye over the issue of representation. In the Report of the Constitutional Review Group of 1996[v] it was recommended that there would be no change to the representation ratio. This position was echoed in the report of the Seventh Progress Report of the All Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution[vi].
However the 1996 Report did state that the issue of the representation ratio would have to be revisited if there was a decision taken to abolish the Seanad. The current Government has loudly signaled their intentions to hold a referendum to abolish the Seanad. It is possible that this may turn into proposals to radically reform the Seanad but it would not be foolish to suggest that the days of the Seanad, as we know it, are numbered. The 1996 report states the “abolition of the Seanad could require an increase in Dáil membership”.
The Seventh Progress Report of 2002 acknowledges that it received submissions calling for a reduction in representation. It reasoned that the exisiting provisions under Article 16.2 allowed for considerable scope in reducing the numbers, they even went so far as to state that under the 1996 census it would have been possible to reduce the membership of Dail Eireann to 120 members.
However a word of caution on the reduction of members was sounded in the Final Report of the Joint Committee on the Constitution regarding Article 16 and the Electoral System for the Election of Members to Dáil Éireann[vii]. The question of minority represenation and gender quotas was a very topical issue in the last General Election. Recommendation 27 of the Report states that there should be no less than 4 TDs representing a constituency unless a three seater constituency is necessary due to the geographic size. The report accepted that three seat constituencies make it harder for female and minority candidates to be elected to represent their communities. If the present Government proceeds with reducing the number of TDs then they may end up undermining their own attempts to increase such representation.
Political reform of the insitutions of governance is a worthy objective if it allows for the views of the citizens to be better represented and achieve more efficient control of the running of the state. However if the changes are only a token gesture to those seeking reform but more relevant to cutting the state payroll for purely money saving measures then these proposals must be critically examined.
[i] Government to Reduce the number of TDs, Presidential Election Spending and Introduce New 6 Month Rule for Dáil Bye-Elections – Hogan, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government, http://www.environ.ie/en/LocalGovernment/Voting/News/MainBody,26092,en.htm 07/05/2011
[ii] The entire constitution can be accessed here – http://www.taoiseach.gov.ie/upload/publications/297.pdf
[iii]  IEHC 369.
[iv]  2 ILRM 321
[vi] The Progress Report can be accessed here – http://www.constitution.ie/reports/7th-Report-Parliament.pdf